The New York Times, the other day, asked the question of whether investing heavily in technology in the classrooms can bring up test scores. It took a good look at what is happening in some districts which are investing heavily in technology. It included voices from both sides of the issue.
It completely missed the point.
When you agonize over whether technology in the classroom is resulting in higher test scores, you are addressing the wrong problem. The problem isn’t how to increase test scores. The problem is how to teach kids to think, to problem solve, to collaborate, to learn, and to create successfully. Kids aren’t struggling to learn because the new technology is or isn’t working. Kids are struggling to learn because real teaching and real learning is being decimated by a nationwide curriculum not just measured by but shaped by high-stakes testing. It’s not just the wave of well-meaning new recruits from Teach for America and the like who are being taught to backwards plan from the test. It’s what this nation-wide climate of testing, from No-Child Left Behind to the Race to the Top, has done to the vast majority of classrooms in the United States, pressuring, training, and influencing teachers, more every day, to cover a little bit of everything so as to give their students a good shot at passing the most questions on the test, without taking the time to go deeply and teach anything well.
I’m not saying don’t test kids to see how they’re doing. I’m saying, don’t forget that the point of education isn’t test scores, it’s learning, it’s thinking, it’s transforming the world into a better place. Don’t create whole systems around raising those test scores, as we have now, and abandon critical thinking, creative writing, collaborative problem solving, deeper reading comprehension, empowered citizenry, powerful communication skills, etc.
Technology can be a wonderful tool, but it is not by a long shot the panacea to our troubles as a nation, particularly in education. No, we need to think our way out of these difficult times with the economy, the environment, and political deathlock. I’m sorry, my friends, but there is not a smart enough Smart Board in the universe to fix any of that until we start teaching our kids to think, to get along, to work together, and to invent and innovate.
Overcrowded classrooms full of laptops is your answer? That’s a nightmare. That’s who we are right now in the workplace, not who we want to become. All that’s missing are cubicles, credit card debt and an ocean of apathy.
I have used technology with students for years. I have taught teachers to use technology for years. I have attended many technology workshops, where teachers learned a new tech tool, got excited and went back to their schools to try it out. I have watched teachers use technology in schools. Here’s a newsflash: most teachers have too little time, too many students, too little support, too little training, and too much stress to successfully implement new technology in the classroom. Yes, the new generation of teachers are definitely more tech savvy, but they are, by definition, inexperienced teachers. The teachers who will ultimately use technology the best, are the teachers who have somehow transcended this climate of test-taking and have developed advanced strategies for teaching kids to think using a variety of tools, engaging the many intelligences of a student from kinesthetic to artistic to verbal.
Just because something engages a student doesn’t mean it educates them. Facebook can be very engaging. It will engage you for hours. So will an ipod. It doesn’t mean you are thinking or learning or growing. If you are driving too fast on a dark road, a tree or brick wall may engage you.
What we need is empowerment, not just engagement. Students taking pop-quizzes with their little electronic clickers is fun, it’s engaging, but we still need to teach kids how to think. Know how you do that? One way is through discussions. Know how you have good discussions where every kid participates in a meaningful way? Through smaller classes and high quality teacher training on managing discussions, excellent programs like Visual Thinking Strategies, which teaches teachers how to facilitate non-judgmental, dynamic, high-vocabulary discussions about art and teaches kids how to make and support observations. Also, create a climate where teachers are encouraged to slow down and take studies deeper, not one where the sum total of your existence is measured by multiple choice answers on an annual test and you’d better, by god, get those third graders on to fractions, geometry and probability regardless of whether or not they know how to add, subtract, multiply or divide, let alone make connections between those operations and creatively solve problems.
Another way you help kids learn to think is through writing. How do you do that? By meeting with them one-on-one, as much as you can and teaching them to write. What’s the single factor that most influences how much you meet with kids? Class size. What helps you to better teach them how to write? High quality teacher training, like that provided by the many writing projects under the National Writing Project, which encourages teachers to teach each other as well as helping teachers themselves to be better writers so that they might be better teachers of writing.
What else? Read great books. Talk about them. Write about them. Draw about them. Act them out. Talk about them some more. Take the time to make links between science, math, art, history. Get out and engage with your neighborhood, study the park, meet the business owners, learn to write letters and persuade officials about issues that truly matter.
Laptops and Smart Boards are great. Let’s use them. Musical instruments are great too. So are books, paintbrushes, telescopes, and shovels. They are wonderful tools. Buy them. Spend your millions if you can’t bear raising teacher salaries, keeping neighborhood schools open, bringing down class size, buying books, funding artists and librarians and musicians and actors and gardeners and scientists in the schools . But let’s stop, once and for all, asking if these tools are going to bring up test scores and start, once and for all, talking about how we are going to use them, all of the tools we can get our hungry little hands on, to teach kids to think.